Since William Hartnell’s cantankerous Time Lord first stepped into the TARDIS and onto our screens on 23 November 1963, there has been a big mystery at the heart of beloved science fiction show Doctor Who. While the hero who has enjoyed countless adventures in time and space goes by ‘the Doctor’, their real name always has been, and probably always will remain, a secret.
Which, for fans of the long-running BBC hit, will fold an extra layer of timey-wimey wonder into the opening episode of the new British season of Who Do You Think You Are? The current custodian of the role, Broadchurch star Jodie Whittaker, attempts to uncover two mysteries dangling from either side of her family tree.
It’s gorgeous to discover that Whittaker was inspired to pursue acting because her paternal grandmother, Greta Verdun Bedford, was a larger than life character. Greta held court in the Junction Inn pub that she ran with her husband George in the West Yorkshire village of Skelmanthorpe. The place where Whittaker would one day grow up.
Once again, there’s a riddle to unwrap caught up in Greta’s middle name. She was named Verdun after the brutal battle in which her older brother Walter is said to have died while fighting in France during the Great War. Only, the 1911 census does not list Walter as a child of Greta’s parents George, a grave digger at St Marylebone Cemetery, and Eliza. Attempting to get to the bottom of this glaring gap in the official records, Whittaker heads to Eastville, Lincolnshire, where Eliza grew up. Teaming up with social historian Dr Laura Harrison, she pulls at a string that unfurls the story of a lost boy that’s worthy of one of Who’s excellent historical episodes.
Without giving too much away, we will say that he grew up to become a doctor of sorts too. Volunteering for the Red Cross as an orderly at the tender age of 21, he would find himself posted at the Netley Military Hospital in Hampshire. It was an ornate, mile-long edifice compared to Versailles at the time of being built. Nothing remains of this ‘medicropolis’ now, barring the chapel. As Whittaker becomes more and more emotionally attached to this young man she has only heard passing mention of, as the reason for her gran’s name, a profoundly affecting realisation settles in.
He worked in this overwhelming place of death that received boatloads of war-wounded shipped over from the Western Front, but then still chose to sign up to serve with the 10th Hussars himself, fully knowing he probably wouldn’t come back, or at least not in one piece. Whittaker wonders aloud, if “you can’t cope with the suffering of everyone else, so you have to go?” But where, exactly, did he go? Is the family mythology of his sacrifice at Verdun, so honoured in the naming of her grandmother, true? You’ll have to watch the episode to find out.
And if you adore Whittaker’s big-hearted depiction of the Gallifreyan Time Lord, you’ll get a real kick out of the real-life actor’s burning sense of justice unveiled when she takes a closer look at the maternal side of the family. Her mum, whose maiden name was Auckland, always spoke of how they were shunned in the local mining community because, way back in the 1920s, they broke a picket line under police protection. Whittaker has always felt this black mark on her family keenly, partly because her mum’s dad would never speak about what went down, but also because of the mining strikes that played out in her lifetime, brutally suppressed by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the ‘80s.
As Whittaker dives headlong down that dark mining shaft – quite literally when she visits the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield – she becomes intrigued by the story of her great-great grandfather Edwin Auckland senior. Somehow he went from being an eight-year-old boy sent to work at the coalface, to dying as a mine owner himself in 1938. And what was her family’s true role in the earth-shattering strikes that left so many impoverished families at the point of starvation?
An eye-opener for Whittaker, it’s glorious to see her dig up this difficult information and process it in an honourable way that would make the Doctor proud.
The new season of UK’s Who Do You Think You Are? screens 7.30pm Tuesdays on SBS. After Whittaker, those taking part include actor and author David Walliams and actress and activist Liz Carr.
See the Jodie Whittaker episode now:
Delve into past episodes of the Australian series of Who Do You Think You Are?, streaming now at SBS On Demand. Season 12 episode 1 features actor and comedian Celia Pacquola:
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